A crusade for the truth in the face of the power of the presidency, The Post is a film that celebrates the bravery of its characters, the truths they shared with the world, and does so with Steven Spielberg’s workmanship. There was very little chance of The Post being a disaster of a film, purely because of the talent involved in putting it together. Detailing the efforts of The Washington Post, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and their staff in getting ahold of the Pentagon Papers, publishing them, and fighting off the pressure from the White House, The Post is a film that is likely to draw comparisons to films such as All the President’s Men or Spotlight. However, it is a far more flawed film than either of those, making it a film that is hard to champion as one of the greatest journalism films ever made. Nonetheless, Spielberg’s ability to create a film that is resonates with an audience in such a rising and stirring fashion has never been in question with The Post only serving as a further example of this ability.
When a film stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, it may be cheating to dedicate time in a review to discussing how great the acting of that film is, but nonetheless, the duo are both phenomenal in their roles. Streep definitely outshines Hanks, playing a far more dynamic and balanced character as she believably takes Katharine from being timid and flustered to being the very picture of strength and leadership. Streep’s range and skill has never been in question, but her performance in The Post is one of her best turns in recent memory. Alongside her, Hanks is strong but his performance is held back by lines such as, “What are you going to do, Mrs. Graham?”, which he delivers in a very showy/aware style that robs the scene of some of its believability. Otherwise, he is incredibly strong, capturing the wit, the stoicness, and the confidence of Bradlee. Beyond this duo, turns from Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, and Matthew Rhys, rise to the top, particularly Greenwood. In the scene in which he warns Katharine about what Nixon will do to stop her from publishing the Pentagon Papers, Greenwood’s intensity and belief in the words he is saying really pours out of him, allowing the scene to be one the more intense and thrilling moments of the film. Furthermore, his turn in the first act from stating his belief that America will lose in Vietnam to, seconds later, assuring the press that great progress had been made, perfectly captures the duplicitous nature of the scandal behind the Pentagon Papers and serves as not only a fine bit of acting for Greenwood but also as a strong, small moment for the film to introduce the degree to which the government lied to their citizens.
The acting, as is mentioned in regards to Hanks, does suffer at times due to the script, which is truly a mixed bag. On the negative side, there are moments of dialogue that are simply too forced and on-the-nose, either being too aware of the moment’s significance or being too eager to show the audience the significance of the moment. The latter especially comes as Bradlee’s wife Tony (Sarah Paulson) explains why Katharine is brave or as Meg Greenfield (Carrie Coon) reads the result of the Supreme Court case and the opinion of one judge. Tapping into Spielberg’s unfortunate inclination towards extremely saccharine sentimentality, these moments clash with the film’s serious tone and its fact-based story by being far too theatrical, drawn out, and explanatory. The film wishes for the audience to see Graham as a hero and for the press to be seen as the champion of the governed, with both of these lines serving to underscore both this intent and The Post’s inability to not spell out its themes. The film’s script further suffers in managing its characters, though its greatest success is also found in the characters. For the former, characters such as Lally Graham (Alison Brie) and Abe Rosenthal (Michael Stuhlbarg), are simply too underwritten. In the case of Lally, Katharine clearly views her as a great source of strength and even shares a tender moment with her as she struggles with her challenging decision, but Lally’s role is largely just to sit next to her and call her “mommy” ever chance he gets. For a role seen as being the one to launch Brie into more dramatic acting, it is a rather inert role and is simply too inconsequential to the plot to be anything more than fluff. Similarly, the character of Abe Rosenthal seems to exist entirely on the periphery and almost serves as an antagonist early on, as The Post oddly positions The New York Times as the opposing team. Unfortunately, given Rosenthal’s own issues with the truth in real life and The New York Times actually being the ones heavily involved in the Pentagon Papers story and not The Washington Post, Rosenthal’s underdeveloped character just serves as a reminder that for a film so concerned about revealing the lies told by the government, it is quite content to simply lie or alter facts to fit its story along the way.
Where the film’s characters serve as a great asset, however, comes via Katharine Graham. Able to rely on Streep to convey both sides of Graham, The Post never shies away from showing her rather awkward leadership of The Washington Post. Portrayed as being concerned with her parties than her job, unable to balance her friendship with Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) and her duty to run a newspaper, scatterbrained, and lacking in the confidence to do much of anything, Graham is a woman who The Post admires but does not wish to whitewash. Rather, it recognizes the issues she had in leading the paper. Attributing some of these to her being the only woman in a man’s world or her own preferences, the film nonetheless makes her rise into being an unwitting and unexpected hero one that is entirely believable. As she gains confidence, power, and trust in herself, the film rises on the back of this strong central character. Her journey to becoming more assured in her job is nothing less than engrossing, while the script’s ability to demonstrate her growth in such a smart, unrushed, and gratifying way, speaks to the screenplay’s periodical strength.
Thematically, though the film may never truly hide its intentions, The Post is quite strong. Taking the character of Katharine Graham and using her as a microcosm of the fight women had at the time – both to gain respect from men and to gain confidence in themselves that they can be leaders too – The Post is a film that is on-the-nose but not preachy. Shots of Katharine walking out of the courtroom with nothing but women on the steps around her is certainly representative of this on-the-nose nature, as is Tony’s explanation of why she is brave, but the film balances these with Katharine’s quiet struggle. Not only must she balance her friendship with McNamara and others she is set to out as liars, but she must grow in strength and confidence to overcome the sexism she faces from her very own board members. She relies heavily on her advisor Fritz (Tracy Letts), but she must leave him behind as well in order to blaze her own trail as the leader of The Washington Post. It is a significant moment in the film where she consults his opinion on whether or not they should publish, only to then go against his advice. For her, it is representative of her growth in confidence and strength, but also symbolic of the way in which she is breaking out and no longer relying on men to tell her what to do. Having leaned on men her entire life to help her make decisions or figure out what to say, she is finally able to break out and become her own person. As such, this moment becomes a powerful one and one that shows what is necessary for a woman to truly climb into power in the time period. Rather than just being a figurehead in the background while letting the men run the company for you, they must take the forefront and grab the bull by the horns. For Katharine, this moment leads to her being highly invested in the company. No longer is she meeting Ben Bradlee in order to tell him to dedicate more time to the “style” section of the paper to engage women readers. No longer will she allow her and the other women she is friends with to be ushered out of the room when the men decide they want to talk politics, only for the women to talk about clothes and gossip. Instead, she is now in Ben’s office, fielding calls from the Assistant Attorney General, talking about how to approach this story, and fighting for the freedom of the press in the Supreme Court. It is a triumphant change and one that The Post never calls attention to, rather allowing it to happen organically and naturally as she learns just what she is capable of as a leader and as a woman.
Furthermore, it is no secret that The Post was put into production by Spielberg and others due to the obvious parallels that could be drawn between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. These themes are always present as they discuss how the President is withholding credentials from papers he does not like, accusing them of false information, arguing them to be the enemy of the people, and seeking any method he can find to keep them publishing information that damages him politically. While these parallels can be drawn, however, The Post is nonetheless still about the Pentagon Papers and their publications. It is never hamfisted, but rather allowing this parallel to exist in between the lines of the film for viewers. Instead, The Post opts to show the work put in by reporters, the power that can be conjured up by the White House to smear the news, and the fight reporters must engage in order for the people to know the truth. Yet, it never shies away from criticizing the news. The Post knows the news is partisan today and has always been partisan. The film criticizes Katharine for shielding Robert McNamara from blame, purely because she is friends with him. Ben Bradlee admits he went soft on John F. Kennedy because he was friends with him and Jackie. He even admits that when Jackie came home after the assassination she instructed him that none of this can be published, only for him to realize he had never contemplated publishing anything that happened, as she had crossed the line from the news story to friend. This is wholly problematic for somebody who serves as an agenda-setter and gatekeeper of information, as this level of partisanship colors the reporting of the paper and their view, often without them even realizing this has occurred. In analyzing this element, the film states that reporters must either be friends or reporters, but cannot be both at the same time. As such, the film not only seeks to put Trump to task for his similarities to Nixon, but also put the news media to task. It shows the flaws in biased reporting, the way in which the same source that spewed nothing but love for Kennedy only to then criticize Nixon for everything he did, and shows why the media needs to do better. It is their job to fight for the governed, not to be friends with the government. It is this additional parallel that allows The Post to be remain balanced, if a little left leaning. This is not some preaching propaganda film about how awful Trump is, but rather a film that believes the government and the news should both strive to do better.
As a film about journalism, The Post’s ability to immerse viewers into the world of a reporter is nothing less than excellent. Akin to films such as All the President’s Men, Spotlight, or Shattered Glass, the world of the newsroom is its own ecosystem. With that, comes the various players in the newsroom, such as the editorial group, the editors, the printers, the feature writers, the general assignment folks, and of course the editor who sends interns on a train to New York to spy on The New York Times. It is in the newsroom that The Post introduces much of its wit and comedy, including workplace humor or simply relying on Hanks’ knack for great comedic timing. It is never an uproariously funny film – though the crowd I saw this with may disagree – but it is one that balances its heavy subject matter by involving the audience in the world of The Washington Post, including the lighter side of the company’s employees as much as it focuses on the hard reporting inherent to their job. In this, The Post’s newsroom becomes oddly endearing and one that makes you root for the company as well as the lead characters, which is exactly what the film needed to accomplish by positioning this as a film about The Washington Post versus the Nixon Administration. It is not a hard sell to make the audience hate Nixon, but it is a harder sell to turn The Washington Post into a flawed protagonist and it is one that Spielberg easily accomplishes.
From here, it makes the investigation into the Pentagon Papers, the search for the papers, and the eventual debate about whether or not to publish them wholly engaging. It is a thrilling film and one that stokes debate within the viewer. Given all of the issues brought up by the lawyers and the fear of losing investors ahead of the company’s IPO, is it worth it to wade into such muddied waters or to let The New York Times take the mantle? Either side brings issues – publishing could lead to the company going bankrupt with its leaders in jail, while not publishing could undermine the mission of the company – making it a worthwhile debate. Though it is always known that Katharine will opt to publish, the weight of the issue and the role of The Washington Post in the world being wholly at stake make it an element that is just as thrilling as the eventual fight against the Nixon Administration or the search for the papers. As such, whether the film takes a more investigatory approach, a political edge, or a courtroom edge, it successfully turns each piece into engaging cinema. By the time The Washington Post fights and takes it all the way across the finish line, it is hard to not get swept up in the swell of emotion with The Post truly capturing a feeling of triumph and jubilation as the “freedom of the press” overcomes the will of the White House.
Visually, The Post is strong but flawed. Spielberg seems to rely on a series of tracking and/or Steadicam shots in confined locations as he follows along with Katharine or Ben in the workplace or at home. These shots often put the viewer right alongside the characters, perfectly capturing Spielberg’s intent of making this newsroom into one that is entirely accessible to the viewer and one that they are also a part of, even as an outsider observer. The film also has a reliance on high/low angle shots in these sequences, often oddly including them with the tracking/Steadicam shots. The best example of this being when Katharine and Ben speak at her party. The camera tracks them into the room as Katharine closes the door behind them, only to then position itself at a low-angle as she enters the room. It is off-putting visually and does not really gel with the scene, as Katharine does not have the power as the camera angle would suggest. Rather, Ben has the power here as he tells her he is about to get the Pentagon Papers and is starting to turn up the heat on her to get her to let him publish the papers. If anything, she is significantly weaker in this moment – with a low-angle camera shot accurately capturing this in her encounter with Robert McNamara that follows shortly after, in which he towers over her and violates her personal space as he warns her about what Nixon will do – yet this brief shot seems to communicate otherwise. This high or low angle shot approach does occur at various times in film, with a few seeming out of place as with that usage. Other than this, The Post’s visuals are similar to its direction, in that they are very workmanlike. It captures the action, frames it nicely, captures a nice period aesthetic, and is a largely fine visual film. It is never extraordinary, it is flawed, and yet it gets the job done for the most part.
Overall, The Post is a greatly flawed film. Yet, it is has far more good than bad in it and, in addition, winds up being a greatly entertaining, emotional, and thrilling work, which helps it to further overcome its flaws. Featuring a wonderful cast, a timely story, an engaging and multi-dimensional lead character, and smart themes, The Post may not be one of the finest films of the year but is another strong entry into Spielberg’s filmography and his recent trend of adult-centered true stories.